Should we tickle babies?

Like a ride on a rollercoaster, tickling can teeter on the brink of being scary or unpleasant. In fact that’s part of what is so fun about both tickling and rollercoasters. But just as babies are too small for scary fairground rides, maybe tickling is too much for them too? Babies are too small to squirm away from us so perhaps it is unfair to tickle them when they can’t defend themselves. An email from Johan in South Africa raises this question:

What a lovely and interesting research project you are busy with!
I noticed from an article I read about your research that you seem to approve of babies being tickled to get them smiling.
I grew up in a boarding school and I can remember what a dreadful experience it used to be pinned down by bigger kids and them tickling you until you are silly. Sadly, it happened to many smaller kids, who had no defense against this.
My question: Babies have no way of defending themselves against tickling, whether they like it or not. They also cannot protest. Isn’t it quite a bad idea to tickle the small ones? If so, you have a perfect opportunity to advise against this practise.

You raise a very interesting question. Some people do find tickling more unpleasant than others. And not without reason. One theory about why we are ticklish is so that we are sensitive to bugs and small parasites that might crawl over our bodies when we slept. Not a pleasant thought and understandable and beneficial that we would wriggle away from it. If that theory is true, then the more surprising thing about tickling might be why do so many people seem to enjoy it?
Here I think the crucial difference is that it can be fun when it is happening in a non-threatening context and we know that it is just someone doing it ‘in jest’. The sensation itself isn’t exactly pleasant, the tickle is still something we will squirm away from. But the overall situation it happens in can be pleasant.. in the context of a game with someone we like. (But in other contexts like you describe in your boarding school.)
So what about babies? As you say they can’t easily get away but I don’t think you need to worry too much about them being completely helpless. From the moment they are born, babies are very good at communicating what they do and don’t like. If they are crying there is probably something wrong. If they are smiling or laughing then they are probably having fun.
The most important thing anyone interacting with a baby can do is be responsive to the signals they are getting from the baby. The world is a confusing place if you are a baby but if we respond intelligently and consistently to them then they will feel secure and can flourish.
Babies love games and they love people and when we play games with them they are not just having fun they are also learning from us. Tickling can be a great game to play with a baby. I think that most babies, most of the time will really enjoy it. If they don’t they have ways of letting you know. It is always important to pay attention to what the baby is communicating to you and respond in an appropriate way.
Likewise, a very physical game like tickling is it’s not such a good game for younger children to play with babies unless they are carefully supervised by adults.
I hope that answers your question.

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